Lifou 2000: A Major Scientific Survey

The coral reefs of New Caledonia, a major focus of marine biodiversity, are exceptional as subjects for investigation by zoologists and ecologists. They harbour an extraordinary profusion of species, representing one of the most complex ecosystems in the world’s oceans. Exploration of a single bay, during the Lifou 2000 research campaign, found a treasure trove of discoveries highly stimulating for scientific imagination and debate.

The scientific survey LIFOU 2000, organized and led jointly by the French National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) and the Instituit de recherche pour le développement (IRD), was conducted at Lifou (Loyalty Islands Province) in October and November 2000. It brought together an international team of 35 scientists, with the logistical means of IRD and the support of the TotalFina Elf Foundation. Unlike the main island, Grande-Terre, surrounded by a lagoon, Lifou is a raised atoll, a large flat island with no rivers. Its reefs plunge straight down to the abyssal depths. The invertebrate fauna had not been studied there since the days of pioneering research by missionaries – over 100 years ago.

An array of collection approaches was used, including diving, drag-netting and harvesting specimens at low tide. This wide-ranging biological survey revealed a magnificent diversity of tropical fauna. It found at Lifou, over an area of barely 5000 ha, nearly 3000 species of mollusc living, which is 1.5 times as many as in the entire Mediterranean (3 million km_) ! Moreover, which is striking, most of the species are rare or even very rare. In fact 28% of them have been seen only once and 22% are represented only by single examples. The samples collected from Lifou 2000, which include several hundred unknown species, signify a world first : the survey is the only study to have available an exhaustive quantified inventory of the species richness of a whole site. An international network of 120 taxonomists is being coordinated by the MNHN to study this wealth of fauna. Many more years of investigation will be needed before these samples can yield all the information they hold.

The results from LIFOU 2000 provide thought for coral reef conservation strategies. The extreme heterogeneity which has been demonstrated suggests that organizing several protected sites into networks could be an alternative to the current system of independent protected areas somewhat isolated from each other.

The Lifou 2000 survey team is now planning a campaign of similar scope in South-East Asia, at the heart of the ” Golden Triangle ” of reef biodiversity, the ” Holy Grail ” of all marine zoologists.

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